100 years after the explorer’s death, Shackleton lives on

With a new collection commemorating its namesake, we talk to the founders of the high performance British outerwear brand…

When Martin Brooks was a teenager, he had a picture of Ernest Shackleton tacked to his bedroom wall. Not a footballer, not a film star — but one of the most grizzled, glorious heroes of the Golden Age of exploration. And it wasn’t an arbitrary or affected choice; far from it. Brooks was enraptured by the adventurer, and even calls his fixation with Shackleton “a kind of lifelong obsession”. 

So, when he was holidaying on a Greek island with his family many years later, and happened upon a man reading Ranulph Fiennes’ biography of Captain Scott by the hotel pool, Brooks couldn’t help but introduce himself. He recalls opening the conversation with: “I’m more of a Shackleton man myself”. Eight years down the line, and the two men are still friends — as well as business partners, and the co-founders of a high-performance outerwear brand. Its name? Let’s just say that Brooks won that Scott-vs-Shackleton debate.

“And our latest collection, the Shackleton ‘Centenary’ collection,” says Brooks, “was launched earlier this year in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of Shackleton’s death. It’s a limited-edition collection, inspired by the iconic pieces worn by Shackleton and his men throughout their expeditions”.

This historic, reverent thread stitches its way through everything the British brand does. Both the core collection of expedition-grade clothing and the ‘Centenary’ range both include deferential nods to the legacy of the explorer. The basketweave-patterned ‘Hero’ sweater is inspired by one of the explorer’s favourites — but handcrafted in Italy from ‘Geelong’ lambswool. And the funnel-shaped hood of the brand’s ‘Lockroy’ parka just so happens to resemble the cut of Shackleton’s trusty gabardine jacket. 

But these touches are as deliberate as they are fortuitous, as every piece produced by Shackleton is conceived and developed to serve a single pioneering purpose; to aid adventure. Why? Because Brooks (who has sailed the Atlantic, and even been to Antarctica himself) and Ian Holdcroft (the poolside Scott advocate) are both something of explorers themselves.

“Through planning, preparing and training for a number of expeditions I have become obsessed with how critical clothing performance is,” admits Holdcroft. “My three main considerations are ‘Performance’, ‘Weight’ and ‘Packability’. When I ran across the Atacama Desert in Chile, I had to carry all the kit and food I needed for a week, so the absolute focus was only taking things that would help me, and the performance to weight ratio was vital”.

This practical approach has shaped the brand, and even influenced its very inception. Before starting up in 2016, Holdcroft asked himself; “Are we really needed?”. It’s never been easier to set up a new company, the co-founder says, but that means that there’ll be fierce competition to be found in any sector in which you decide to start-up. 

“Your point of difference is usually along a very thin line,” he says, “so it pays to make sure that line is strong and distinct. The world doesn’t need another technical brand, what we’re trying to do is connect high performance with a great aesthetic. It tries to make you look good as well as saving your life, if it needs to”.

Thankfully, the brand have the approval of the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, the great polar explorer’s granddaughter, who has supported the entrepreneurs’ endeavour since the beginning. Holdcroft calls it “fantastic” that the brand can consult Shackleton on all matters relating to her grandfather and, as she is the closest living relative to Sir Ernest and the figurehead of the family, it makes her the ultimate ambassador.

“That was the first task,” says Martin Brooks. “To ask the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton on board. Then, we registered all the trademarks and began making our first product, which was a very scratchy replica sweater that smelled like sheep. 

“But,” he adds, “we then found some excellent investors, including John Smith, ex-COO of Burberry and Coldplay’s Guy Berryman. And, in 2017, we made our first serious performance jacket, the ‘Endurance’ down parka. That’s since been used to break polar records and has beaten all the usual suspects — from Canada goose to Moncler — in even the toughest product tests”.

Brooks’ pride is well-founded. And, though each Shackleton product is steered by purpose and performance, there are plenty of additional properties and standards that must be met. Among the many production standard certifications held by the brand are the ‘Global Recycle Standard’, the ‘Responsible Wool Standard’, the ‘Global Organic Textile Standard’ and the ‘Responsible Down Standard’. Ironically, it’s a whole stack of standards — to prove that this brand is anything but.

"Our first product was a scratchy replica sweater that smelled like sheep..."

“We’ve always been very mindful of the ethics of production and supply chains,” says Ian Holdcroft, “particularly in relation to animal products; our mission to become the world’s best performance outerwear brand cannot be at the expense of animals. And the main change since we made our first serious performance parka in 2017, the ‘Endurance’ down parka, is that our range of outerwear is now made with 100% recycled fabrics. We’re also fur free as of 2019 — the result of many years of Italian development to retain a similar efficiency and appearance to real fur”.

It’s a heartening commitment to progress, and one that shows Shackleton has truly captured the trailblazing spirit of its namesake. But, while many of the nods towards the explorer — from design quirks to the geographical product names — are subtle in their celebration, the bold brand logo was one element that Brooks and Holdcroft wanted to stand out. So where did the star motif come from?

“Sir Ernest died on 5th January 1922, aboard his ship ‘Quest’ in Antarctica,” explains Brooks. “He’s buried in Grytviken graveyard, South Georgia, and a Robert Browning quote is engraved on his gravestone: ‘I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize’. 

“On the other side of the gravestone is a nine-pointed star, chiselled into the granite stone. This star is a combination of two elements; his favourite number was nine and his final diary entry the night he died was; ‘In the darkening twilight, I saw a lone star hover gem like above the bay’.”

It’s a romantic notion; almost a rose-tinted take on the Golden Age of exploration — and a spirit that Shackleton is fighting to keep alive. After all, which other brand has a ‘Director of Expeditions’ on the books? Back in 2019, Shackleton filled that very position with the talents of decorated polar explorer Captain Louis Rudd MBE.

“And Louis has just returned from Antarctica,” notes Holdcroft, “where he’s been testing our soon-to-be launched ‘Mission’ jacket. Over a 50 day period, trekking to the South Pole and then climbing Antarctica’s highest mountain, Mount Vinson, Louis put it through the ultimate test in temperatures — as low as -40 degrees and extremely strong winds”.

But this, Brooks says, is standard. The British brand know that the ‘Shackleton’ name carries certain expectations with it, but they’ve been determined to doggedly fill their namesake’s fur-lined boots. Brooks says that his team is in the process of “building the world’s best product testing program”. It’s a rigorous, extensive process — calling on both Rudd and Head of Product Performance, Gord Betenia (former Advanced R&D Project Testing Specialist at Arc’teryx) to put every product through its fleece-trimmed, down-filled, waterproof paces. 

Image: Josias Dein

In this way, the brand is returning to its roots — to the ice sheets of the Antarctica; to the one-sheet tacked to Martin Brooks’ bedroom wall. Because Shackleton the brand wouldn’t exist without Shackleton the man, and both Brooks and Holdcroft see it as a key tenet of the company to exalt and educate others about the explorer — in whatever way they can.

“To commemorate the centenary,” says Holdcroft, “we’ve also launched the ‘Shackleton Medal’, an award to recognise and celebrate those individuals who best use their time, resources, courage and ingenuity to raise awareness of, and address our polar crisis. 

“We have also partnered with the Royal Geographical Society and British Film Institute in recent weeks,” he adds, “in their own celebrations of this anniversary. We’ve been a presenting partner on the RGS’s exhibition, ‘Shackleton’s legacy and the power of early Antarctic photography’ as well as partnering with the BFI on their screening of South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic.”

It’s as triumphant and timely a commemoration as the hallowed explorer deserves — and more than fitting for a British brand to be spearheading the celebrations. Thankfully, with more expeditions on the frosty horizon, Brooks and Holdcroft have ensured Shackleton has come in from the cold for good.

100 years after the explorer’s death, Shackleton lives on

Centenary ‘Hero’ Sweater

£225

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100 years after the explorer’s death, Shackleton lives on

'Haakon' 3-in-1 Tactical Parka

£1395

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100 years after the explorer’s death, Shackleton lives on

Centenary ‘Explorer' Jacket

£395

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